Silhouettes Part 1: Humans and Non-Buildings

Welcome to Photo Series 3: Photography in the Abstract, post #3! Today I’d like to talk about silhouettes in photography. I like silhouettes for the same reason that I like black-and-white photography or the Instagram square – constraints breed creativity. Without the inside of shapes at your disposal, silhouette photography forces alternate solutions to create compelling media. In addition, I like the clean/simple inherent quality of silhouette photographs. They feel like photography for graphic designers. I’ve taken so many of these pictures that I’m going to cut this post into two parts. Today we’ll look at humans and non-building silhouettes. Let’s get to the classifications. Again, the question I ask is:

What ways can you use silhouettes to compose a great picture?

Full Human Dwarfed By Environment


It’s important to have the full human body for scale. [Yangshuo, China]


The quality of reflected light here is just stunning. Silhouettes require good lighting. [Taiyuan, China]

People As Human Disruption Objects


The man disrupts the railing pattern. Emphasizes that he’s THERE. [Chongqing, China]


Again, human placed to disrupt building pattern. And again, I think it emphasizes his humanness.


Woman waits at the Chinese version of Disneyland. [Shenzhen, China]


This picture is strange. I love his hat’s outer glow. And how he and the other silhouettes interact visually. [Shanghai, China]

A disconcerting point about the above pictures is that they feel more human by taking away the face. Perhaps any human is more relatable than human.

Strange Fruit Hangin’

The next three categories are composed of non-building, non-human silhouettes. This first category is simply silhouettes of strange objects, hanging. I’m not entirely comfortable making the Strange Fruit reference. Hmmm. What a beautiful, sad song. Let me know if this connection is offensive.


Pants. [Kaiping, China]


Temple adornment. [Huhot, Inner Mongolia, China]

Strange Line Hangin’


Look at the movement of the line. Love the lightbulb. [Fenyang, China]


Tassle. [Chengdu, China]


Squiggle. The big black bulge is key. [Guangzhou, China]

Multi-Line Interaction

This classification is relatively obvious after the last category. However, there is a big difference in the type of lines portrayed. In the single line category, the line is must be dynamic enough to stimulate interest as a single object. In this multi-line category, the lines are more likely to be straight and/or geometric because a bunch of curvy complexity creates a random picture, not one with intention.


Lines. Pole. Good distance between them. [Fenyang, China]


Lines have just enough pattern. I like the pipe texture near the connection to concrete. [Fenyang, China]


Again on the edge of organized chaos. [Fenyang, China]


Breaking up pattern (fence) with another (wires). Look at where each item exists on the z-axis. It’s surprising. Also, arguably not a silhouette because of the amount of lighting on the fence. [Fenyang, China]


Repeating crosses thrown onto the background. [Xilamuren Grasslands, Inner Mongolia, China]

Until Next Time

What are the areas of exploration for human and non-building silhouettes? I don’t have any multiple person silhouettes. The “strange objects hanging” group is ripe for further pushing. Also, I could concentrate more on the interaction between cool sky elements and silhouettes. I don’t touch on that at all here.

Join me next time when we look at Silhouettes Part 2: Buildings and Sky. As always, hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts in picture form! Drop questions/comments to me somewhere on the internet!

The World’s Largest Mall is Abandoned

Welcome to the second post in Photo Series 2: Understanding China. Ghost malls are cool. Let’s check ’em out.

Why I Went To This Mall

The summer of 2013, I spent 6 weeks to walk the 500-mile Colorado Trail. I wanted to do something similar in China but instead of walking constant nature, I wanted to walk through constant city. My 100-mile trip looked like this: Guangdong to Dongguan to Shenzhen to Hong Kong; 4 of the world’s 30 most populous cities (according to this metric). Unfortunately, I got quite sick at the beginning of the route and was only able to walk about 40 miles. Nevertheless, this trip allowed me to see strange attractions that I wouldn’t have seen “on-the -beaten-path”. One of my favorites was the New South China Mall — the world’s largest mall, mostly abandoned.


It seems weird, right? The whole point of this walk was to be surrounded by dense urbanity, by people. And here was a massive abandoned mall? Those two don’t quite compute. Another strange aspect of this mall is that it has never been occupied: it’s been 99% vacant since 2005. The ramen noodle billionaire who funded it should’ve kept to noodles.

I arrived at the mall, ate some Pizza Hut until sunset, then went inside. I shouldn’t have explored at dusk. Hot damn it was creepy.


Essentially the first thing I saw when I walked in. Happiness graffitied out. Note beginning expanse of mall in the background.


When the lights were still on, they made for this space-like yellow-blue combination. All the escalators had tarps over them, possibly to protect against dirt?


It wasn’t working. I wonder who (if anyone) was in charge of maintenance.


The dirt/dust combo was everywhere. These flowers were beautiful once, before they were covered with a centimeter of minuscule debris.


Piles made. Piles forgotten.


Organized chaos.


I hadn’t seen a soul for the last 30 minutes. This car scared the living hell out of me when it drove up. It marks the transition of my time in the mall. A transition from dusk to night, from dusty to the terror of unintentionally uninhabited space.


Paradise? Disagree.


Aw hell naw.


A small fraction of the never used food court tables.


I don’t like not knowing when this trash was left here.


New anomalies I’d encounter around every turn in the pseudo-darkness. 


Always random. Always creepy.

Things Have Changed: This Mall is Indicative of China’s Growth

The situation that I have conveyed above is not entirely true, but rather what I had been told was true: Here exists the world’s largest mall, completely abandoned. My information primarily came from a New South China Mall Wikipedia article. Its most recent citation was from more than three years ago. In the last three years, there has been incredible residential growth in the area surrounding the mall, driving retail growth within the mall itself. When I arrived outside the mall, I saw thousands of people: families playing, security guards monitoring the parking lot, hostesses at the information desk. This wasn’t the post-apocalyptic wasteland I had wanted. Asking around, I learned that nearly 50% of the mall’s spaces were filled! I actually had to search to find the abandoned part. And when I took the elevator from a desolate ground floor up to the top floor, I found a karaoke bar! I asked the bartender why this high-class establishment was located on top of a creepy retail expanse. He responded, “Rent’s cheap.”

The transition of massive Chinese developments from “ghost” to occupied is a theme throughout China. 400 million Chinese have moved into cities in the last 30 years with another 400 million moving into urban areas the next 15. You can’t build houses, retail and public transport once they get there, you need to build it before. That’s why stupid projects like New South China Mall are only stupid on the surface. Before I went to China, I may have argued that the developer should’ve waited three years before beginning construction. But if he would have, who knows how much property and labor costs would’ve risen or whether another developer was eyeing the same opportunity. All that the developer knows is that people will come soon. In China, the classic Field of Dreams quote is reversed. It’s not: “If you build it, they will come.” Instead, “They will come regardless. Build it.

Until Next Time

As always, hope you enjoyed this post as much as I enjoyed writing it. What a surreal experience, exploring a massive abandoned mall with only my camera flash. Similar to that scene from Saw actually.

Finally, the argument presented here is but one of the reasons for “ghost buildings” in China. Economics are confusing, especially in China where their state-sponsored system is unfamiliar to Americans like myself. One of the most interesting driving factors for mass construction is that investing in property is a great way for the rising middle-class to invest their money. When other outlets like the stock market are too volatile, buying a bunch of apartments around China and letting their value rise (see above) is a good way to beat inflation.

See you next week when I tell my next personal Chinese story.



Last week, I broke down the different ways color can be used to compose a photograph. Another key tool that photographers can use is oof, the out-of-focus parts of a picture. I love oof, but unfortunately my point-and-shoot camera doesn’t allow me to easily produce it. (My camera’s max aperture is small. Small aperture means that depth of field is greater.) It’s the main reason I’m excited to get a DSLR (someday). Before I break down oof in this article, I want to bring up a quick technical aside. Bokeh is the quality of blur in a photograph, i.e. is the blur octagonal or donut-like? I will not talk about bokeh here.

Again, the question that I ask is: what are the ways that oof can be used to compose a great picture?


These photos blur the entire scene. They are most effective with animals — you can identify the animal, but the animal’s expression is not important (we emotionally connect more with human’s faces).


Horse on a riverbank. [Guilin, China]


Ancient sheepherder…herds his sheep. [Mt. Old Grandfather, Fenyang, China]


The next three categories address the three places where a photographer can place oof: the background, the foreground, and both (where the midground is in focus).

Boring In-Focus Foreground, Colored Blurry Background

Background oof is at its best when the objects in focus are boring and the background oof has a spot of color to make it pop.


Farmer in a quickly urbanizing suburb. [Chongqing, China]


Brightly colored houses are the norm in Harbin, where they are used as a diversion from the long, cold winters. I love how the only in-focus part of this picture is the dark quarter-circle in the bottom left. [Harbin, China]

Dark Blurry Foreground, Bright In-Focus Background

Shots with foreground oof require the in-focus background to be worth looking at. The simplest way to create a compelling background is to light it up while making the foreground dark.


A bench. It’s the bright background more than the dark foreground that creates emphasis here. [Yangshuo, China]


Western-style buildings from the 20’s at a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This picture messes with my sense of scale. [Kaiping, China]


Tour guide at the top of an old emperor’s tower. The “mane” of her hood is emphasized here. [Guilin, China]

Midground Focus

Midground focus is the most difficult kind of oof to utilize, essentially because there are three variables: blurred foreground, in-focus midground, and blurred background. I’ll show three ways to use it below. First, use the midground clarity to emphasize texture of a continuous object.

Walking Around The School 108

A rusty water pipe at my school. The pipe is the continuous object. It goes from blurred, to in-focus texture, and back to blurred. [Fenyang, China]


An abandoned yurt on the outskirts of an Inner Mongolian horse outpost. The painted concrete is the continuous object. [Xilamuren Grassland, Inner Mongolia, China]

Second, use focus to emphasize a picture broken into thirds, i.e. 1st third oof, 2nd third in-focus, 3rd third oof (an oof sandwich!).


An orange drink can, in this position for god knows how long. This picture uses the same “boring foreground, spot of color background” pattern outlined earlier. Horizontal cuts into thirds are emphasized by the blur, focus, blur pattern. [Harbin, China]

Third, use boring foreground and background oof to make the midground subject pop. It’s best when the foreground and background are of a similar hue.


A skull (presumably goat) and an empty liquor bottle at the top of a pile of stones used to mark location in the grasslands. [Xilamuren, Inner Mongolia, China]

OOF As Tool To Emphasize Connection

This final category uses oof to emphasize a shared trait between the foreground and the background. Although the following two pictures both use background oof, in theory the location of the oof shouldn’t matter. The connection is all that matters.


Exposed rock at the top of a mountain. The connection here is that the close-up rocks have a damn similar shape to the mountains behind them, as if each mountain was a repeating series of fractals. [Guilin, China]


Leaves and red dirt near a man-made tree enclosure (the blurred bumpy texture). The shared connection here is primarily color — that earthy red. I would count “interesting texture” as another shared property that this photograph brings out. [Kaiping, China]


Until Next Time

I think oof is the photographic concept in which I have the most room for growth. Pictures like the ones above are difficult to capture with my point-and-shoot. Once I get a DSLR, I’ll put most of my photographic mind energy into exploring its design space. Still happy with the way these turned out. Let me know (here or on social media) if you have any pro oof techniques!




Grouping Abstract

This is the first post in Picture Series 3: Photography in the Abstract. As I said in my hook post, I take a ton of abstract pictures.

In this post, the abstract concept that I’m going to tackle is color.

Defined By Color

Nearly all of my pictures have some color. The photos below are those that are defined by it. The question is: within photography defined by color, what are the ways a great picture can be composed?

Multicolored Puzzle

I imagine these pictures like a world map, or a puzzle. Define areas with distinct lines, then color them in. The first two pictures are the most removed from reality, closest to a map in the abstract, and are therefore prototypical. The man (3rd picture) and the suitcases (4th picture) need the first two pictures in order to see the pattern.




Statue on an artists collective street. [Shenzhen, China]


Suitcases in an underground mall. Imagine each as a “state” or a “puzzle piece”. [Hong Kong, China]

There Are Many Different Things And I Want To Look At All Of Them

These pictures are like iSpy. In each, the number of objects is ~50. The viewing pattern is usually something like this: 1. Look at the picture as a whole and get a vibe for the general situation. 2. Scan your eyes to each quadrant of the picture, then zoom in on certain objects there and dissect its details.


The most prototypical. Many colors. A couple different types of objects. Colors “pop”.


Street stall. This photo minimizes the difference between objects to a number close but not equal to zero. [Hong Kong, China]


In front of the Three Gorges Museum. Less immediate attention on color than the last two. The color reveals itself when you take time to understand each person’s story. [Chongqing, China]

Monocromatic Splatter on Boring Background

The question to ask in these pictures is: what are the physical properties of the color that fell? That will determine the splatter pattern.


Physical properties of glass.


Physical properties of paint.


Physical properties of…?

By the way, it could be argued that these Sony commercials (this and this2) are video versions of this type.

Space Ice

The penultimate classification is a bit special. I went to the world’s largest snow and ice sculpture festival in a city named Harbin which is sandwiched between North Korea and Russia. Turns out, illuminated ice makes for great pictures. Reflections and cracks in the ice refract the light to look like phenomena from space. Not necessarily a replicable heuristic for taking great color pictures, but cool nonetheless.







The Anti-Pop

Nearly all the pictures above “pop”, bringing energy to the viewer. However, that was not the quality by which I classified these pictures. I wrote, “The photos below are those that are defined by it [color].” In theory, the “pop-y” nature is just a likely byproduct of being defined by color. I need to show a counterexample to prove that it’s not always the case that: if [defined by color] THEN [pop]. The photos below are ones defined by color but don’t pop.


Drapes hang inside a Tibetan Buddhist temple. [Xian, China]


Janitor rests after cleaning up an outdoor theater in the Chinese version of Disneyland. [Shenzhen, China]

Until Next Time

So that’s my first take on color. There are two related ideas that I didn’t cover today: the absence of color (black and white) and monochromaticity (pictures that engulf you in a single color/pique your interest with a gradient of similar shades). They are both deep topics that I’ll cover in the coming weeks. Should be fun!

Hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Drop comments and questions here or on various social media. Is there a category that I missed? Is my 5-group classification paradigm but one way to map onto this set of pictures? What’s your favorite photo?

Exploring the Architecture of Density

This is my first post in my Photo Series 2: Understanding China as explained in my hook post.

A Phenomenon That I Wanted To Take Pictures Of

China has many people. Nearly 95% of them are located in the southeast on 45% of the land mass. However, population density is not unique to China. There are megacities on every continent with higher population densities. It’s the vastness of high population density that sets China apart. During my travels, there were few times that I couldn’t see a clump of high-rise apartments if I turned my head 360 degrees, Exorcist style. I wanted to capture this phenomenon with my camera.

The Most Famous High Population Density Photography

Clearly, high population density photography has been done before, most famously by a man named Michael Wolf in an exhibition named Architecture of Density.


It’s one of my favorite collections of photography. Each picture is essentially the same as the one above, just with a different set of apartment buildings in Hong Kong. Definitely check out the link above.

Alternate Ways To Capture This Phenomenon

If you know how I operate, you know that I don’t like to do things that have been done before (what’s the point?). I could’ve taken pictures like Michael Wolf’s (albeit less good I assume), but I didn’t want to. Instead, I was excited by the puzzle: Take pictures that enforce Architecture of Density‘s thesis without copying Michael Wolf’s style.

My solutions were: Capture Z Depth, Use Glass Reflection, Emphasize The Hypotenuse, Concentrate on Negative Space.

Z Depth

Wolf’s photography tells us, “Look! x and y are huge!” But he tells us nothing about z, that these skyscrapers are nearly touching others in front and behind them. For “z-Depth” pictures, I tried to show buildings at as many positions as possible. They are most effective when the contrast between buildings is high.



This picture captures some z depth and also repeating y depth. The roofs of lower buildings are at the same height as the entrance to higher buildings. (This city, Chongqing, is quite hilly.)


Glass Reflection

Another way to capture is to use a building’s reflection of another building. The pictures below say, “Not only is this tall building here, but there is also another building directly across from it (behind the cameraman).

reflection1 reflection2 reflection3 reflection4


In Wolf’s pictures of width and height y, we are amazed by how dense x is and how dense y is. Instead of bringing attention to or y, the hypotenuse method brings attention to the hypotenuse of the picture, a longer line that can therefore have more in it (than just or y in isolation).hypotenuse1


Negative Space

When there are a bunch of tall buildings in tight proximity, the view of the sky becomes a strange geometric shape. I tried to capture this by concentrating on the negative space the buildings create, not the structures themselves.


Until Next Time

Wolf didn’t leave too much room (zing!) for other angles on the density thesis. Three of my solutions involve the z-axis: Z Depth, Glass Reflection, and Hypotenusing. One of my solutions contradictorily involves the absence of building (Negative Space). I’m honestly not sure how much other photography design space exists here. I’d probably need to live in Hong Kong (like Wolf) to find it.

Hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. Drop comments and questions here or on various social media. Do you see other solutions to this puzzle? What’s your favorite picture?


This is the first post in Photo Series 1: Stories From China, as explained in my hook post.

It’s the week of Halloween. I need to teach fourteen 60-student classes (14*60 = 840!) about the holiday. Time to get dressed up. Scour my room for random items and create characters from their amalgamations. Construct a “tourist” costume and give them my camera to take the pictures you’ll see below (brilliant Rhys, just brilliant). Bring it all to class and…GO! Here are the costumes:


Gotta have a witch. She reps it well.


This is what a witch hat looks like after 800 students have a go at it.


I’m two Chinese celebrities at once: Jay Chou (guitar) and Fan Bing Bing (sparkle dress on my left shoulder).




Crazy goggle monster.


Stylish ghost.


Ghost, chinese-dragon style.




Lebron James. (The jersey, that is.)


Some of the costumes were a bit weird. This costume is just me. I wore that gray hoodie nearly every day. My students were a bit grossed out, but got peer pressured into wearing it. Hooray!


Another weird one. The kid on the right is Food Man!, a fruit-carrying, hot-dog-wrapped-in-paper wielding superhero/chef.


Oh soup monster. Why are you so sad?


Using all the costume accessories they can find to create a mega-costume. Boy version.


The female equivalent. Less loco, more stylish.

After giving out all the items, I’d bring a table of students outside. We’d go through the pile of costume accessories and create characters for each person.  Then, Jay Chou and Fan Bing Bing would go inside and greet the series of strange characters that came into the room. It looked like this (note all the laughter):


Getting ready outside, pre-costume.


Laughing at someone offscreen. Love the girl’s laugh.


Laughing at someone onscreen.


Rawr. Where’s the costume?



When my kids started to feel that freedom and craziness of the day, they just got goofy:





Finally, a group of pictures that just make me smile.


Probably my favorite picture of all. That confidence.


Damn cute.




Obligatory peace sign.


Trying to do homework! Not on Halloween ya ain’t.


Just perfect.

Until Next Time

There were two main things that made this week awesome (for me and my students). First, anticipation. Starting Monday at 8:00am, I was lurching around the schoolyard with a hammer, a witch’s hat, a guitar, a pile of food and a tower of clothes (among other things). When kids see me on Monday and then hear rumors about the crazy class on Tuesday, they can’t help but feel that hype for our Wednesday class. Second, comfort. I tried to create a safe space in which my students felt little hesitation just letting go. I made it clear from the start that this is Halloween goddamnit and ain’t no one gonna be judgmental.

Constructing this post has definitely made me nostalgic. I miss my students. How could I not miss these awesome memories we created together?

Hope this article gave you a fun first glimpse into my teaching life in China. Sound off in the comments or on social media with questions or your own Halloween-in-a-strange-place experience.

The Time Has Come!

Welcome to my blog. It’s mostly a photo blog, but I’ll transition to add music and straight ideas over time. A true photo blog like this has been long time coming. I have concentrated on photography three times in my life: Nepal, The Colorado Trail, and now, China. For Nepal and The Colorado Trail, I used Facebook as my medium to show pictures and convey my thoughts. As I put more thought into my photography, I found that there was an incongruity between how I was displaying my work and what I was displaying. In essence, I found that Facebook was too casual for what I wanted to express. I want to express first-class ideas through the lens of photography. I want make art, I guess. And this blog feels like a much better place to do that than Facebook.

Photo Series 1: My Stories From China

This photo blog will be split into three separate series. Photo Series 1: My Stories From China is the most personal, the most relatable, the most fun. Posts in this category will mostly be told in a linear, story-like fashion. Here are some stories I’m excited to tell:


[Fenyang, China]


[Dongguan, China]


[Nanjing, China]


[Macao, China]


[Chengdu, China]

Photo Series 2: Understanding China

In Photo Series 2: Understanding China, I’ll present some of the ideas to help us understand the unique way in which China operates. I’ll take us from the personal (My Stories From China) to the societal. Here are a few choice pictures from this series:


[Suzhou, China]


[Chongqing, China]

老爷山 069

[Mt. Old Grandfather, China]



[Dongguan, China]


[Hong Kong, China]


Photo Series 3: Photography in the Abstract

My final series is by far the most “highbrow”. In Photography in the Abstract, I zoom out one more level, from societal to cerebral. I would classify these theses under “Photography Theory”; the pictures found here are unconnected to a specific time or place.

I define abstract pictures as ones that are: not interesting for my personal story AND don’t reflect a truth about China/life.

Abstract pictures are difficult to differentiate because:

1. I have defined them as the not of two other concepts, and therefore there are lots of pictures, none of which have inherent similarities.

2. They are the closest to art. There is no story/thesis behind them except for my arbitrary groupings.

What’s in store:



Chillin' With The Watsons 249


呼和哈特 206

Until Next Time

I am still low-budget/low-time in many ways: I use a point-and-shoot camera, I don’t do any post-production, and I don’t pay for this site. Nevertheless, I’m excited to explore this more serious approach to photography. Hope you enjoy my posts as much as I do. And please, do leave comments/questions here or on various social media. I’m open to feedback or just let me know if you simply enjoy it. Thanks!